back to the Black Table


Mr. USA Johnny O. Jackson says, "This is bullshit." He places four 45 pound plates on each side of a barbell and bench presses them effortlessly, as if he was pumping only the bar. He fires off eight repetitions, takes a rest without replacing the bar in the rack, eight repetitions, a rest, eight more, and does not stop until he has finished four sets. I do the math. Jackson has done thirty-two repetitions of 225 pounds, just to blow off steam. The amateur bodybuilders who have dared to enter the pump-up room stay close to the walls and avoid eye contact with Jackson.

In the backstage area, just about everyone except the competitors has crowded around clipboards full of paper. They are comparing the numbers worn by competitors with those used by the judges to award prizes, then checking those against the documents that list the winners in each category. A consensus emerges. Someone, somewhere along the paper chain, has misawarded all of the armed forces trophies, in some cases awarding lightweight trophies to middleweights, and vice versa. Ken Taylor, by throwing a tantrum, has saved the integrity of the contest.

Locker room morale is low. The athletes are wandering in slow, aimless patterns, absently spraying corn oil on themselves and talking in soft voices.

I talk with Cpl. James Hardie, a young Marine whose regular job is event staff at the theater. I ask about Cory Smith, the Shark, who is said to have lost 68 pounds in preparing for the contest, and Hardie responds with the combination of enthusiasm and expert analysis that always seems to accompany any talk about Cory Smith. I say that Smith looks like he has always been in good shape. "He wasn't fat," Hardie assures me. "Just really buff." Hardie reminds me of dozens of other young soldiers I have met today. Youngish-looking, unfailingly polite, with a soft gaze that turns to steel when the conversation ends and it is time to return to work.


Intermission is over, and Fat Matt is announcing raffle winners to sporadic cheers. The two biggest men backstage are waiting nervously. Johnny O. Jackson, shifting uncomfortably from toe to toe, and Head Expediter Mike Kuhn, standing motionless and quiet. Matt introduces Jackson as "the next big thing in bodybuilding," and the sound engineer cues Jackson's introduction music, pealing funereal bells also used by a professional wrestler named Undertaker.

Once again, the curtains will not open.

Matt is ad-libbing, ". . . and his favorite wrestler is the Undertaker."

Mike Kuhn is not yelling. He is beyond yelling. His voice is icy as he demands an explanation. Why are the curtains not opening? Someone in an event staff T-shirt says that a fuse has been burned out. "Fix it," Kuhn says.

On stage, Fat Matt is doing a cartwheel.

At last, the curtain is raised, and Jackson takes center stage and immediately owns the crowd. He is magnetic, a natural performer with a babyfaced smile and a natural charisma that seems to spring from his confidence. He cycles through the same poses that the amateurs have displayed all evening, but there are subtle nuances to his delivery that make the poses seem new. A fluidity of movement and the way his body becomes rigid for fractions of a second. Now he moves in slow motion. Now at half-speed, now at full-speed, and some members of the audience are standing up now, applauding. The music changes. Light hip-hop. Jackson makes a stop backstage and picks up a stack of videos and throws them to the crowd while dancing. The light technician turns the lights off and on to the rhythm of the music.

Backstage, a Marine event staffer tells Mike Kuhn he is worried about another fuse blowing. The problem, the Marine says, is that an outside contractor is running the curtains, and they are not accustomed to the unique electrical set-up in the theater. Kuhn tells the Marine to handle it.

Jackson finishes his pose routine. Matt tells the crowd that they can buy the guest poser's pictures and videos in the theater lobby at the end of the evening. Jackson will make most of his money tonight in merchandise sales.

The Armed Forces division lines up backstage. One soldier says to another, "Think we'll get our trophies tonight?" The lightweights pose first, and Clive O'Connor, a Marine, is declared the winner. Now the middleweights, and the audience is once again chanting Cory Smith's name. Someone in the back is blowing an airhorn. Smith finishes second, behind Johnny Myers, who also won the Master's division. There is applause, but the general feeling is one of anticlimax. The crowd is getting tired.

The overall Armed Forces winner will be determined by a posedown between the weight class winners. There is more to the posedown than body mass and definition. An element of showmanship is required, and O'Connor and Myers do their best to deliver. One man poses, and the other steps in front, edging his opponent from center stage. They take turns doing similar poses, and they throw unconventional poses into the mix, highlighting muscle groups that the judges might not yet have seen. O'Connor and Myers are winning back the attention of the gathered spectators. When they are finished posing, Matt declares John Myers the overall Armed Forces champion. O'Connor's eyes betray his disappointment, dropping to the floor momentarily, but then he shakes his opponent's hand and smiles into the lights. Myers holds his trophy above his head, blows a kiss to the crowd, and walks off stage, trophy lofted.

The second round of the Women's Figure is next, and Lisa Evans, the system's analyst, is declared the winner. The women take off their high heels as soon as they exit the stage. The heels hurt their feet.

Now the Women's Open begins, the traditional bodybuilding category. It is a measure of the growing popularity of the new Figure division in amateur contests that there are only two athletes competing in the Open. Kathy Booker is first. She poses to energetic dance music and there is a bounce to her poses that is reminiscent of Johnny O. Jackson. She glides from pose to pose, then freezes, and there is a graceful beauty in the stops. Booker is a better poser than any of the amateur men who have taken the stage before her.

Melissa McKnight is next. This is her first contest, and she waits nervously backstage for the sound man to cue her music, "Get This Party Started." On stage, she is coquettish. She flirts shamelessly with the crowd, and her moves are more sensual than Booker's. Her husband Chip, who competed earlier in the Master's, stands backstage and snaps pictures with a disposable camera. Other bodybuilders are slapping him on the back, and he wears a proud smile.

Booker wins.

The first two categories of Men's Open, lightweight and middleweight, are won by default. Even division had only one entry. Both winners are crossovers, and neither poses. O'Connor, the middleweight winner, takes home his second trophy. Colonel Vince Bentley, a family practice physician stationed at Hunter Army Airfield, wins his first.

The light heavyweight division provides the best competition of the night. The strongest of the athletes are Derrick Taylor, a former member of the Marine Corps powerlifting team, and Robert Tucker, who resembles the 1960's comic book version of Superman. Both pose to the same music, "With Arms Wide Open," a melodramatic rock ballad by Creed. The repetition seems to work to Taylor's advantage since he poses first, and audible groans can be heard when the music is repeated. But Tucker won Prejudging, so Tucker wins in the end.

Bennie Foston is the lone heavyweight, and he is the biggest man in the contest. Foston lives and trains with Women's Open winner Kathy Booker. Backstage, I hear a light heavyweight say, "That guy's gonna win the Open."

The music ends, and Fat Matt calls for Bill Brown. Tonight is Brown's first night as promoter of the Lowcountry Classic, and he speaks briefly about the history of the competition and thanks the judges and participants. Brown calls for Russ Hosmer, the longtime event promoter who has handed Brown the reins this year. Hosmer is beloved by the Parris Island bodybuilding community. Later, Head Expediter Mike Kuhn will say, "This is my last show," and many of the expediters and event staff express similar feelings. They have worked the show year after year out of a sense of personal loyalty to Hosmer; they will leave with him.

Hosmer is slow to appear on stage, so Matt initiates a chant. "Russ, Russ, Russ, Russ," and the crowd joins in with enthusiasm. Brown presents Hosmer with a plaque commending his years of service, and Hosmer responds with a gracious wave and a quiet thank you.

The Men's Open posedown is the show finale. Each of the Open weight class winners take the stage, but energy is lacking. From the wings, Johnny O. Jackson is yelling, "You're not tired. Fight for it."

But they are tired, all of them except Benny Foston, the heavyweight. "Alive" by P.O.D. is blasting through the house speakers. Foston takes his place at center stage and cycles through a series of elegantly executed poses, and the others pose, too, but everyone is watching Foston.

Ken Taylor and Johnny O. Jackson take the stage to raise Foston's hand in victory. Then Jackson nudges him forward. It is Foston's show. He does a final set of poses, and the crowd cheers. Matt tells the crowd that Foston has just officially qualified for a national event. Foston alone has the opportunity to become a professional. Perhaps in a few years he will return to Parris Island to become, like Jackson, a guest poser, a bodybuilding celebrity. But watching Foston and Jackson side-by-side, one becomes aware of the gulf between amateur and professional, between local contest winner and Mr. USA. Later, backstage, Jackson will give Foston expert advice and words of encouragement, but he will also regard him with a newfound wariness, the respect given to one who might one day demand the other's position.

At the end of the contest, for once, the curtain closes on time.


After the show is over and most of the spectators have left the building, the participants begin to speculate about what went wrong with the show, and whose fault it might be.

Event Promoter Bill Brown is conciliatory. "It was an administrative problem," he says. "It was a problem on the promoter's side of the house."

I ask Brown what was going through his mind when Ken Taylor was standing over him, screaming. "When a problem arises," Brown says, "we can fix it easier if we stay calm."

Head Expediter Mike Kuhn is hustling the event staff through the cleanup and shut down routines. He is anxious to go home. "I was disappointed," he says. "We usually have flawless shows."

Head Judge Ken Taylor, now aware that I am planning to write a story about the contest, has again become engaging, amiable. He is not eager to talk about what went wrong, preferring to promote the sport of bodybuilding, which he now describes as, "Like nation-building, like character-building." He keeps his distance from Bill Brown.

In the lobby of the theater, Johnny O. Jackson is selling videotapes and signing pictures. He talks about his first professional show, the GNC-New Orleans Classic. He says he is putting together a portfolio to send to event promoters nationwide. He is living on a small stipend from a fitness company, and he says that he is a long way from stardom. Now he must book appearances, make political connections, and get bigger.

I meet Fat Matt outside, and we walk in the night heat to the hotel room we are sharing on base. I ask him about the cause of the backstage confusion. He says that no one will ever know, but that the problem was most likely a paperwork problem. "Whose?" I ask. "The judges," he says. Ken Taylor's judges.